When, in the winter of 2001, former Kansas University athletic director Al Bohl tapped a fiery Oklahoma assistant named Mark Mangino to help turn around a program coming off six consecutive losing seasons, he did so with the comfort that he’d picked the right man for the job.
Eight years later, with Mangino the subject of an ongoing university investigation concerning his treatment of players, Bohl’s feelings on the matter haven’t changed.
“I never tried to hire a coach because he was just a buddy of Al Bohl’s,” Bohl said. “I tried to hire people that were best for the university and that could really have an impact on the program. Mark Mangino was somebody who knew what the ingredients were to be successful at a place like the University of Kansas.”
In the days since current KU athletic director Lew Perkins made the investigation public — a move that set off a messy chain of events — Bohl is one several former colleagues who have voiced their support for the Jayhawks’ embattled coach, many of whom remain fiercely loyal to the man affectionately known as “Bear” to his longtime friends.
Among the allies are current Big 12 coaches Bill Snyder of Kansas State, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma and Mike Leach of Texas Tech, each of whom said Monday that the allegations raised in recent days — from the coach’s regular verbal abuse of players and assistants to his pressuring of players to play through injury — didn’t mesh with the man they’d coached with at various points during the past 20 years.
“He was very close with (players), appreciated them, did everything that was appropriate,” said Stoops, who worked with Mangino at both Kansas State and Oklahoma.
Added Snyder, asked whether he witnessed Mangino cross any lines during their eight years together in Manhattan: “That didn’t happen to my knowledge, and not a whole lot slips under the radar from that respect. He handled the players well.”
Bohl, meanwhile, said he didn’t remember receiving any player complaints about Mangino during the time they were both at Kansas, adding that the job of head football coach requires a certain level of toughness and an ability to walk a tight rope.
“If you talk to other coaches, you realize that there are 100-and-something Div. I programs, let alone all the Div. II and IIIs, and those coaches are just one or two complaints away from the same thing probably happening to (them),” Bohl said. “That tough love and things that coaches deal with, every coach is only a heartbeat away from one or two players complaining.”
Those who know Mangino insist his approach hasn’t changed over the years. He always has worked a certain way, always prided himself on his toughness, discipline and attention to detail. Players looking for a hug and a pat on the back should go elsewhere.
But always, coaches say, he’s carried out the job the right way.
They remember a man who demanded everything from a player so long as he was standing on a football field. A man who, after a night shift driving an ambulance on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, would grab a couple hours of sleep on the floor of his Geneva College office before rising to begin preparations for practice. A man who, despite his rise to national prominence, still makes the time — even with the prospect of preparing for Texas gnawing at him — to keep in touch with old friends.
What they don’t remember, however, is the kind of person being portrayed by some former players — one who berated members of his team for the sole reason of breaking them down.
“We’re maybe old-school, where you see a kid with some talent and they’re not maximizing it,” said Geneva College head coach Geno DeMarco, who served alongside Mangino when both were assistants at the school in the late 1980s. “Maybe for us not blessed with NFL talent, we’re just not going to let that go. If you came to some of my practices, you’d probably think, ‘Wow, this guy’s at a Christian school, and he’s pretty animated and fired up.’ It’s just part of the way he was coached, the way we were all coached.
“Let’s take a poll with the 750 or so college football coaches, and we’ll see how many of them coach with their hands behind their backs and their mouths closed,” he added.
They also point to his success.
Not just the on-field accomplishments — four straight seasons of bowl-eligibility, consecutive bowl victories for the first time in school history in ’07 and ’08 and an unprecedented Orange Bowl trophy — but to the behind-the-scenes achievements as well.
Mangino’s first recruiting class, for instance, tallied a significant increase in graduation success rate, while the program also posted its highest team grade-point average in history (2.69) during the spring semester of 2007.
“When you have 130 guys on a team, you can find some disgruntled players,” said John Latina, who assisted Mangino in getting his first Div. I coaching job as a graduate assistant at K-State. “On every team in America. Things I’ve read and things that I’ve heard, I think it’s somewhat unfair. What I know is (Kansas) wasn’t very good for quite a few years before he got there, and he took a program that was down — in a tough area of the country that doesn’t maybe have the most recruits in the geographical area — and he’s done a phenomenal job with it.”
Asked whether he would feel comfortable sending his own children to play for Mangino, Latina said, “Tomorrow.”
As the saga has played out across newspapers and television sets across the country in recent days, some ex-colleagues are trying to understand what, exactly, the motives are behind the airing of the university’s dirty laundry in a public setting.
Mostly, they seem confused as to how an alleged poke in the chest has resulted in a former national coach of the year fighting for his coaching life as rumors concerning his future in Lawrence swirl.
“This guy could have run for governor last year in Kansas and won,” DeMarco said. “And now, all of a sudden, his coaching techniques are questioned because they’ve lost some games?
“Just call it what it is,” he added. “This isn’t about football. This is about something else.”